The Downside Of Screentime Exposed

I was the mean mom that limited computer time. My kids were allowed to play educational games on the computer for a limited amount of time each day.

I did not allow them to have a gaming system until the youngest was 10. Time on it was also limited. I was also the mom that provided my kids with stupid phones, mostly for my convenience in being able to track their whereabouts as a working mom, until they were pretty well grown or could buy their own smart one.

I believed then and still do, that after seven hours a day sitting in the classroom and being tied to an ever-increasing amount of technology in the classroom, my kids needed to be outside, engaged in real time activities with their peers and interacting the rest of the family.

Turns out a few pretty smart guys agreed with my approach. Oddly they are the ones that gave us many of the screens I see toddlers grabbing for and manipulating when I am out and when I spend time with my young nieces and nephews.

According to Business Insider, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs limited their children’s use of technology:

In 2007, Gates, the former CEO of Microsoft, implemented a cap on screen time when his daughter started developing an unhealthy attachment to a video game. He also didn’t let his kids get cell phones until they turned 14. (Today, the average age for a child getting their first phone is 10.)

Jobs, who was the CEO of Apple until his death in 2012, revealed in a 2011 New York Times interview that he prohibited his kids from using the newly-released iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” Jobs told reporter Nick Bilton.

One has to wonder what they knew about the effects of the products they invented. An ever-growing body research shows that for children and teens, screen time has an addictive quality. It is being likened to cocaine and other drugs as far as the effects on young brains and rehabilitation programs have cropped up even though there is no formal diagnosis.

Some of the most startling findings have come from Jean Twenge, Ph.D. Dr. Twenge has been researching generational differences for several decades and has a data set that includes approximately 11 million adolescents across generations. The title of Dr. Twenge’s most recent book alone should parents of adolescents pause and parents of young children a warning:

In an excerpt from The Atlantic:

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

To those of us who fondly recall a more analog adolescence, this may seem foreign and troubling. The aim of generational study, however, is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

Other significant items in Dr. Twenge’s research findings regarding the i-Generation (also called Generation Z):

  • Nearly one in four teens does not have a driver’s license when they graduate from high school
  • The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015
  • 12th graders in 2015 were going out less than 8th graders did as recently as 2009
  • Only about 56% of high school seniors in 2015 went out on dates

One of the conclusions she draws is that childhood is lengthening and today’s 18-year-olds are more equivalent to the previous generation’s 15-year-olds. The other is that despite more time at home, they are no closer to their parents.

Perhaps the most definitive finding she cites is from The Monitoring the Future survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This study has asked 12th-graders more than 1,000 questions every year since 1975 and queried eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991.

The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.

There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness. Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media. Admittedly, 10 hours a week is a lot. But those who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are still 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media even less. The opposite is true of in-person interactions. Those who spend an above-average amount of time with their friends in person are 20 percent less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who hang out for a below-average amount of time.

Hopefully, continued understanding on the effects of screentime will lead to moderated approaches to technology in the classroom as well as a proliferation of “stupid” phones that are used just to make a phone call for pre-teens and adolescents. In either case, the mounting research and the parenting controls of some of tech’s top executives should provide clues to parents with young children that with technology, it is possible less is more. And I am awfully glad I was such a mean mom.

If you want to learn more, Dr. Twenge’s book is available on Amazon.

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